Safety Third

“You don’t dive for specific solutions; you dive to enliven that ocean of consciousness. Then your intuition grows and you have a way of solving those problems—knowing when it’s not quite right and knowing a way to make it feel correct for you. That capacity grows and things go much more smoothly.” David Lynch in Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity

I stood there and began to fret.

“I’m not feeling too good about my footing right now,” he said as he swung his leg over this jagged rock outcropping. He placed his hands on two tiny ridges like a rock climber and took two giant steps. I watched his pack disappear slowly over the ridge. I couldn’t see the trail at all. I heard him yell, “I see the trail again! We’re good.”

He poked his head around the ridge. Our eyes met. I had no idea how he got to where he was standing. “Are you okay?”

I froze. And I fretted some more.

Then I looked down. You know that kinda awesomely trippy moment in Vertigo when Scottie has his nightmare of falling?

That’s what I felt like. Only I didn’t disappear into my mother’s Victorian era necklace or a grave. I started calculating how bones I would break before my body stopped somersaulting 4,000 feet down an avalanche chute full of scree. How I would fulfill my professional obligations in a full body cast. 

“Do you need help?” he said, and we just stared at each other. I looked at him and I fretted so more. 

At this point, I’m scared. Really scared. I’m old enough to know I better, I scold myself. I’m smarter than this. I’m too old to be this scared in the mountains. Ugh. My older mountain woman has learned from the mistakes of my younger self. I now really care if I get hurt or if I’ll cause stress for others should I get injured. I’m no longer the invincible 20-something I once was (a memoir). And here’s what stuck in my craw; I had to admit I needed help. From a man. Dammit. My Hobbit-like legs were not going to carry me over that ridge. Asking for help is not easy for me. I can handle myself in the mountains, and I don’t usually need help from anyone. Only I did. Oh dear. Oh dear. What did I get myself into?

I fretted some more. How do I admit to my inner feminist mountain woman that I can’t do this, I thought. I can’t. I can’t. I can’t. I can’t. Like a broken record in my head. I can’t. 

I decided to take the lower line. I grabbed onto a handful of Krummholz. I took two handfuls of this tiny tough tree and I placed my feet in between the branches. I couldn’t see my feet. Suddenly what look possible scared me even more. I transfered my weight to my front foot, and I lost my footing. I started to slide. 

Scree slid. More rocks above me slid. “Are you okay? Do you need help?” my friend says.

I can’t do it. Yes. I need help.

My friend, a mountain man in his own right, walked over to me, told me what to do, grabbed my pack, pulled it over to the ridge, and extended his hand. I took it, ignored that my leg was bleeding, and I climbed over the outcropping that made me lose confidence in myself. I followed him to a spot where we could both rest. I was shaking really hard.

I need a minute, I said. We stood there in silence, and then he shared with me that he’d have to take it slow from here on out. An old injury apparently was going to slow him down. I’m in no hurry to hike fast, I said. We then continued to hike, and we talked just like we did before I had my meltdown. What was really nice is that he didn’t laugh at me or make fun of me until we drank a bit of whiskey and relaxed later that night. When I was ready to laugh at myself, that’s when he described his perspective of my fretting. A friend.

It wasn’t until much later that I started to think about fear and learning and what I realized in that moment. I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve done professionally in the last two years, and I have few presentations involving fear on ye ol’ CV. In my best moments, I think I tried to wave a magic wand to help people overcome their fears–especially as it relates to technology.

What I didn’t do is explore or acknowledge the root of that fear. What makes people–teachers and students–scared. Resistent. Suspicious. Reluctant to try. Angry. Frustrated. Tired. Really scared.

That moment when I stood on the rock fin of a mountain I wanted to climb; I got it. Here I was, hiking with a rock climber–they see mountains differently than hikers–so what was kind of easy for him was really really really hard for me.

Of course, you can debate me on this, but climbers want the faster route to the top of the mountain. Climbers dislike long switchbacks and meandering trails. They just want the view at the top and the accomplishment of the hard steep climb. Hikers, on the other hand, enjoy the walk. The meandering of the trail to the top. The accomplishment lies in the travels of the day. I don’t mean to generalize nor do I mean to turn this into a climbers compared to hikers thing–it’s not. I’m trying to point out a perspective here. A mentality.

Here’s the thing: When I think back to that moment of sheer terror for me on the scree, I couldn’t see the path. I couldn’t see how to get where my hiking partner was nor could I get over the very loud voice in my head telling me I was a failure. I was weak. A weak woman needing the help of a man. The shame magnified my fear and I could see no path. No trail. No way to escape. I was stuck.

That’s what happens in teaching and learning. People get stuck. They get scared. They need help. They need somebody to tell them they can do it. They need somebody who has walked that path. Climbed that line. Scaled that mountain.

When my friend, stuck out his hand to help me, I felt safe. Like I could do it. Words didn’t help me. A map didn’t help me. Technology didn’t help me. It was empathy. Kind, sweet, empathy.

Early in the day before we got on the trail, he told me about a concert he attended where he saw a very intoxicated woman wearing a hat that read, “Safety Third.” Imagine waking up after a hard night of drinking next to a woman wearing that hat, he said. I laughed and said, “I bet you’d regret not remembering the night and how you got there.” We cracked up with Safety Third jokes.

But this got me thinking about teaching and learning. What if we put safety third? I don’t mean safety in the same way of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. No. What about if we put joy first, creative expression second, and then safety third? What if we said, have a bit of fun, experiment, and then feel safe doing so. I got your back if you need help. Just try. Just try. For climbers, this is the person who belays you. For hikers, this is the bend in the trail when you wait for your partner. For walkers, this is adjustment of your pace. For students, that’s the role of your teacher. For teachers, that’s the role of administrators who should support you. For dreamers, these are the people who dream with you.

I use Lynch’s quote above as my epigraph because I love this clause: knowing when it’s not quite right and knowing a way to make it feel correct for you.

That’s it. That’s the notion of safety I’m trying to express.

As I helped a variety of new teachers prepare their courses last week, I could sense a fear of taking risks (what if hurts my tenure bid? my future employment? my students? my time?). I could sense fear of looking inadequate. I could sense a frustration that I couldn’t help them resolve. I advised so many to just get their courses off the ground and we can work on some of those creative ideas they have in the winter or spring. They want to be climbers or hikers, but really, they just need to practice walking. And worse still, there are others who are ready to fly and we aren’t equipped to help them either. We’re so overwhelmed trying to support the newbies. So overwhelmed.

For example, one teacher, a computer programming instructor, asked me why we do not allow a certain function with our LMS. He said with some venom in his voice, “You people are clipping the wings of innovation for faculty.”

I quipped back, “I have too many folks who are struggling to get out of the nest. That’s mostly who we support, so the majority of your peers don’t need that access.” I smiled.

Nice come back, he said, and thanked me for the workshop. Shook my hand.  I love it, by the way, when I’m lumped into “You People.”

An hour later, I helped a student understand how to use the Shift key–not shift+click–just Shift to make capital letters. To use symbols. Basic keyboarding. She typed with two fingers and I estimated she was in her 30s. This student is enrolled in all online courses, and she was so overwhelmed and scared. “Everyone seems to understand how this works, and I don’t get it. Why do I need four passwords and three browsers just to do my homework?” I noticed there were already 48 posts in one thread. Oh dear.

How do I explain the complexity of textbook and software integrations with LMSs and out-dated networks that don’t communicate with one another? How do I explain that she’s not alone? How do I explain that we are failing students like her en masse with online education?

I didn’t. I helped her do her homework as my phone lit up with calls from students and teachers. As my inbox filled with tickets, requests, complaints, and questions. It took 30 minutes for her to type one paragraph and learn how to upload an attachment.

After our meeting, I wondered later about her fears. About if she’ll find the trail that she’s looking for. About the mountain top she can’t see. About how I’m scared–so scared–about the future for adult returning students in online courses. At community colleges. At universities. About students like her and how maybe she’ll never get to the joy or creativity because she doesn’t know what safety feels like when she sits in front of computer.

For these students, we have to put safety first or they’ll never ever experience the wonders and joy of learning for learning’s sake. Otherwise this climb–this future of teaching and learning–looks more like a mirage or false summit, and I’d really like to change that.

We do that by caring people first then the technology. The people. Then the technology. The People.

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
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